Baseball is back in Japan. NPB teams have been playing practice games against each other since June 2 and the June 19 start of the regular season is approaching fast.
With that in mind here are six players to keep an eye out for in the Pacific League.
Shuta Tonosaki, Seibu Lions, infielder
Tonosaki had big shoes to fill in taking over for Hideto Asamura at second base and delivered 26 homers, 22 stolen bases and quality fielding. He hit .274/.353/.493 and finished with a 128 weighted runs created plus, per Data Stadium.
Tonosaki isn’t the Lions’ biggest bat, nor their fastest runner, but he slots nicely into the whole and there’s no reason to think he can’t help keep the engine purring with another 20-20 effort.
Yuki Yanagita, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, outfielder
If you’re talking all-around talent, there aren’t many NPB players higher on the list than Mr. Fullswing.
Yanagita is a former league MVP with a career .319 average and .968 on-base plus slugging percentage over nine seasons. For all his acumen as a hitter, Yanagita is also a four-time Golden Glove winner.
A knee injury limited him to 38 games during the 2019 regular season, though he played in the postseason.
The delay in starting the 2020 campaign has given him more time to get his legs under him and he should be swinging his way out of his batting helmet as usual this year. Yanagita started to heat up over the weekend and should hit the ground running.
Yuki Matsui, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, pitcher
A lefty with a hard fastball and really good slider, Matsui seemed to have found his niche as a closer. Since 2015, the 25-year-old has posted four 30-save seasons, including last year when he led NPB with 38 and also struck out 107 in 69 2/3 innings.
But he wants to be a starter.
Matsui is shifting back to the role after 17 starts in 2014 and two more in 2018. He had a shaky spring before the coronavirus shutdown, but has bounced back this month.
It’s going to be a big adjustment for him and how it goes will have a big impact on Rakuten’s season. But the rewards, if it works, are worth the initial risk.
Ayumu Ishikawa Chiba Lotte Marines, P
Ishikawa has been fairly decent over the past five seasons with the exception of 2016, when he was really great and 2017, when he was pretty bad.
He’s expressed a desire to pitch in MLB so it’ll be interesting to see how he follows up on that on the field.
Ishikawa showed good form with his sinker last season and had a strong finish to the season. The righty made 27 appearances in 2019, including 17 starts, and finished 8-5 with a 3.64 ERA and 3.33 FIP.
He’s the No. 1 starter, although Atsuki Taneichi and Kota Futaki are nipping at his heels.
Kohei Arihara Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, P
Had a Sawamura Award been, well, awarded last season, Arihara may well have won it.
The 28-year-old right-hander led the Pa League with 15 wins and posted a 2.46 ERA and 2.97 FIP, second only to Orix’s Yoshinobu Yamamoto in the PL, in 164 1/3 innings. His 0.92 WHIP led all NPB pitchers. He struck out 161, smashing his previous career high of 103 in 2016.
Arihara has also expressed a desire to reach MLB sooner rather than later. At 189 cm and 95 kg, he’s got a good build and in 2019 he showed a varied pitching repertoire, including a great changeup and a forkball batters had trouble with.
Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Orix Buffaloes, P
What Yamamoto lacked in actual wins (eight) he made up for elsewhere. He led NPB with a 1.95 ERA and 2.69 FIP in 143 innings. He struck out 127 and walked 36 then turned heads with a biting forkball while pitching in relief for Japan during the Premier12 in November.
At 22, the Buffaloes right-hander is still coming into his own and has the potential — and the arsenal — to emerge as one of the most exciting pitchers in NPB. He averaged 150.9 kph with his fastball in 2019 and mixed things up mainly with a cutter, forkball, curve and shuuto.